Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon kissing in the aftermath of their wedding in San Francisco / Image courtesy of Olga Berrios via Wikicommons under CC BY 2.0

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon: A Political Love Story

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were the first same-sex spouse to legally marry in San Francisco, California. The home they bought and lived in together was recently designated a city landmark, making it the first lesbian landmark in the U.S. West. This is their story. 

It’s a love story. Two women meet, fall in love, buy a little house in San Francisco, and stay together for 56 years, separated only by death.

It’s a political story. Del Martin (May 5, 1921 – August 27, 2008) and Phyllis Lyon (November 10, 1924 – April 9, 2020) became lovers in 1952. They didn’t like the 1950s bar scene. But what was the alternative?

Well, they had to create something. On September 21, 1955, they formed a group with three other couples, for socializing, for creating community, for attracting others.

What to call this? Something that does not say “homosexual” and therefore scare women off. Years before, Pierre Louÿs wrote The Songs of Bilitis, dedicated to “the young daughters of future society.” And Bilitis has a 10-year love affair with a woman. Well, why not Daughters of Bilitis? And a symbol: a triangle, with a stylized “D” and “B” intertwined upon it, and the words “Qui vive” “(who lives”, or “who goes there”)

They began a newsletter, which became The Ladder, a nationally distributed magazine, 1956 – 1970. They gradually attracted more women, and began DOB chapters in other cities. It wasn’t long before the groups began to splinter over those who solely wanted socializing and support, whereas others wanted to change the society around them.

Del and Phyllis went all in for change. They began working with other groups, including Mattachine, which put them on Herbert Hoover’s radar. He had them under surveillance for years, including phone tapping.

They helped form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in 1964, persuading ministers to not only accept homos into their folds, but also to lend their support to decriminalize homosexuality.

It became obvious over time that the men in the Gay groups were as sexist as men in general, with some even worse! Plus, the political agenda was often marred. Del famously wrote an open letter in The Advocate in 1970 “Goodbye My Alienated Brothers” expressing her sense of betrayal, sorrow and anger at being subjected to all that, and how it harmed what she and her sisters were trying to do.

The pair found common cause with the nascent women’s movement. And in concert with others, successfully struggled with the Lesbophobia in NOW (National Organization of Women).

They produced the ovarian book Lesbian/Woman in 1972. It fed and filled the lives of millions of women and won an American Library Association Book Award. Lesbian Love and Liberation came out in 1973, further exploring sexual freedom of choice, community, activism, etc.

Del served on the NOW Board of Directors in 1973 – 4, and cochair of NOW’s National Task Force on Battered Women and Household Violence from 1975 – 1977.

Phyllis began work with the National Sex Forum in 1968 and received a Doctor of Education in Human Sexuality in 1976, working on issues of sex and sexuality until the end of her life. Phyllis and Del helped create and then serve on the boards of a number local and national Queer organizations. The list includes San Francisco Women’s Center, Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club, Bay Area Women’s Coalition, Coalition for Battered Women. They worked all in with several AIDS organizations. They were appointed to the National Conference on Ageing in 1995.

Del worked with Law Enforcement, with victims of crime, crime and violence prevention, and police interfacing. “New” work in their 80s included with The Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California, and Gay/Lesbian Outreach to Elders Advisory Board.

Naturally when Gavin Newsome ordered his city clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses in 2004, Del and Phyllis were the first couple to marry, with the mayor himself doing the honors. But when the California Supreme Court voided same sex marriages a month later, Phyllis pleaded: “Del is 83 years old and I am 79. After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time.”

In 2008, when the California courts said SSM was, in fact, valid, they once again were first in line. Regrettably, Del died two months later.

Phyllis held down the fort, still working with individuals, politicians and nonprofits until the very end, using that same living room where all those

other meetings, parties and brain-storming sessions had been held over the years.